On My Own


The Hall of Mirrors: Adolescence and Young Adulthood

On a weekday afternoon, I head downtown on a crowded New York City subway train. Sitting across from me on her from me on her mother’s lap, a child no more than three years of age gently, even lovingly, combs her hair, spellbound by her reflection in the tiny hand mirror her mother holds up. It is just after three, school has let out, and the car is full of loud, exuberant teenagers. But the child is oblivious to everything but that small piece of herself she has caught sight of, which gazes back at her with remarkable insouciance.

On a nearby seat, three teenage girls sit talking together with manic intensity. They, too, are completely absorbed in their own world: the world of adolescence. Dressed to code—jeans, short leather jackets, multiple gold studs in their ears—they hunch together to share a morsel of gossip. As they talk, one of them reaches into her backpack, retrieves a tube of lip gloss, and deftly applies it, her attention shifting only slightly. She checks with her friends for approval. “Okay?” she asks. But they are busy crucifying a schoolmate for making a fool of herself with some guy named Lenny. “You should have seen her tripping over herself to get close to him,” one of them says. “You should have seen him trying to get away,” says the other. All three howl with laughter. But the lip gloss girl persists. “Is the color okay?” she asks again. “Yeah, it looks good,” the others answer, “but why are you bothering to put lipstick on now?” It’s not so much a question as a comment on her vanity, and it seems to throw the girl into self-doubt. She rummages through her backpack to find her mirror, then studies her reflection, her expression both smug and anxious.

Watching these two scenes side by side, I am struck by the vast distance separating childhood and adolescence and how it asserts itself in the way each of these girls uses the mirror. For the child, the mirror is an object of wonder. She is able to look at herself guilelessly, free from the snare of self-consciousness and self-criticism. Watching her comb her hair, she seems to come alive to herself, stroke by stroke.

By contrast, the adolescent girl’s relation to the mirror tells a story of ambivalence. When she looks at her reflection, she is measuring it against some idealized picture of how she should look that’s in her head. But this is only part of the story. Ultimately, she is searching for something far more elusive: an affirmation that she is “okay.”